“Once it becomes clear that procrastination, as culpably unwarranted delay, involves a mens rea (guilty mind), important aspects of the phenomenon and significant opportunities for intervention come into view” (p. 51).
The sentence above was written by Joel Anderson (Utrecht University, The Netherlands) in his contribution to our recent book Procrastination, Health & Well-Being. In his chapter entitled, Structured Nonprocrastination: Scaffolding efforts to resist the temptation to reconstrue unwarranted delay, Anderson does a brilliant job of laying bare the self-deception that is inherent in procrastination.
His focus is on the various ways that procrastinators avoid the truth about what they are doing. Most importantly, he begins by making it clear that when we procrastinate, we are at some level aware of the truth. We recognize the foolishness of our choice, all things considered, and we are culpable of an unwarranted delay. We have a guilty mind.
Of course, we are strongly motivated not to acknowledge or live with this guilt or the awareness of it. As Anderson writes,
“Procrastinators let themselves believe things that they know are not true . . . By reconstruing the situation in a way that distorts it, procrastinators can preserve a positive self-appraisal. They can delay while still thinking that they are not one of those lazy people who procrastinates all the time” (pp. 51-52).
This is a process of self-indulgent reconstruals upon which procrastinators rely. Interestingly, Anderson explains how these self-protective strategies are well known to criminologists and social psychologists. There is a rich literature documenting how all of us, including criminals, “neutralize” our actions, or inaction. For example, this research shows that the less able criminals are at reconstruing the transgressions that they are contemplating, the less likely they are to break the law.
Based on this process, Anderson reasons that if we’re unable to reconstrue our procrastination to reduce the dissonance we feel, we’re less able to “self-license” to continue on. The less we’re able to reconstrue our unwarranted delay as “not so bad,” the stronger the incentive to stick with our intentions.
As Anderson writes, “. . . restricting possibilities for reconstrual helps potential procrastinators by keeping up the pressure to conform to what they know, at some level, to be true” (p. 54).
How do we restrict these possibilities?
Anderson proposes that structuring the environment may be a way of outsourcing some of this work. Instead of depending on our internal resources of will, for example, we can lean on the “structure” of the environment to help. To the extent that the environment affords us this support, we have “structured nonprocrastination” – the thesis of his chapter. [Note: For those interested in a previous use of a similar term, see a very early blog post on “Structured Procrastination.” Anderson writes about this distinction, but I have not addressed it in this short blog post.]
I have written about Anderson’s previous work (with Joe Heath) on the notion of “extended will,” and here he draws distinctly on this concept. In sum, extended will borrows from the concept of “extended mind” with the central idea being that we can extend our mental capacities by using the external world.
For example, we can only do so much math “in our heads,” but with the use of the environment such as a pencil and paper or calculator, we extend our minds to be capable of even more. So it is with extended will. Using the environment to support our will means that we’re more likely to follow through on our intentions. We’re not doing it “all in our heads.” For example, a friend might help support my flagging willpower by moving me away from the dessert table at the buffet to help me meet my goal of “losing 10 pounds.”
Anderson provides examples of how we might use the environment to more successfully resist the temptation to engage in self-indulgent reconstruals that enable our procrastination. Applying this analysis to the psychological processes of attention, motivation and judgment, he makes a compelling case that this may indeed be an effective strategy for reducing procrastination. I’ll take one of the three as an example so that you might apply this in your own life.
Given that in my own research we have found that procrastinators tend to use distraction the most as a dissonance-reduction strategy, I’m going to focus on Anderson’s discussion of attention. He argues that procrastinators typically deceive themselves (enabling reconstrual) by simply putting the task out of mind (or, if you think of it more passively, “letting it slip” from mind). Remember of course, that I agree with Anderson that procrastination necessarily involves the requirement of a mens rea – a guilty mind. We are aware at some level of the foolishness of our choice, or if you want the irrationality of our choice or even, to be blunt, that we our culpable. The thing is, we’re very good at not paying attention to this and putting our intended task out of mind.
How, then, do we keep the task on our minds? How do we keep from giving into the temptation to reconstrue our delay in a self-serving way?
Planning and being specific about when you will do things helps, as well as concrete tools that represent these plans such as calendars, datebooks, or reminders from our apps.
“To take an illustration from the context of health, consider Gary, who has noticed that he has been getting colds quite frequently and thinks that it would be good to make an appointment with a primary care physician soon to get some medical tests done. And yet, he finds himself putting it off. Gary thinks of himself as conscientious and certainly not someone who would to fail to take care of himself, particularly given that he has a young family. As he considers, at a certain point, whether to phone the doctor or put it off for a day, the lack of specificity in his intention affords him plenty of wiggle-room for thinking that he is still going make the appointment “soon” . . . In such contexts, by entering into his calendar a specific time for making the call and an automatic reminder, Gary can create an attentional structure that makes it difficult for him to overlook the fact that failing to make the call at the appointed time is a case of delay” (p. 56; emphasis added).
Yes, of course, there is always the possibility that Gary could procrastinate on making the calendar entry (a form of second-order procrastination) or make a self-indulgent reconstrual about why he’s ignoring the alarm on his app. No panacea here, but these are important tools to help us be more honest with ourselves, if we want to.
There is more to Anderson’s chapter and much more empirical work to be done to explore his theoretical contributions on the role of self-indulgent reconstruals in procrastination. I would just emphasize one key thing in closing.
Anderson hit the nail on the head when he so succinctly characterized procrastination as culpably unwarranted delay. No one to date has been so clear, and this is itself an important contribution that will initiate much more discussion and research.
Moreover, for each of us, he has highlighted a key process that must be addressed to decrease these unwarranted delays in our lives. We simply must learn to identify when we are engaging in self-indulgent reconstruals, as this recognition alone might serve to strengthen our incentive to stick to our intentions.
Anderson, J.H. (2016). Structured nonprocrastination: Scaffolding efforts to resist the temptation to reconstrue unwarranted delay. In F.M. Sirois & T.A. Pychyl, (Eds.), Procrastination, health and well-being (pp. 43-63). New York: Elsevier.